Title 18 U.S. Code 2511 defines the federal offense of unauthorized interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications. In other words, this federal statute prohibits anyone from intentionally intercepting, trying to intercept, or getting other people to intercept wire, oral, or electronic communications.
It further prohibits using electronic or other devices to intercept oral communication under certain circumstances. It makes intentional disclosure of oral, wire, or electronic communications, with the knowledge that they were obtained through unlawful means, a federal crime.
Due to continued technological advances, privacy has become an increasing concern for United States citizens. Thus, the government has passed laws against intercepting any unauthorized oral or wire communications,
18 U.S.C. 2511 says, “Any person who (a) intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication;
(b) intentionally uses, endeavors to use, or procures any other person to use or endeavor to use any electronic, mechanical, or other device to intercept any oral communication when—
(i) such device is affixed to or otherwise transmits a signal through a wire, cable, or other like connection used in wire communication; or (ii) such device transmits communications by radio or interferes with the transmission of such communication; or (iii) such person knows, or has reason to know, that such device or any component thereof has been sent through the mail or transported in interstate or foreign commerce; or….”
The illegal intercepting or use of communications involves wired or wireless communications on interstate networks that cross state lines, meaning it will typically fall under the federal government's jurisdiction. There is a right to privacy that is protected in the United States. There are several federal laws dealing with electronic communications. Let's review further below.
What is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)?
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Wire Electronic Communications Act are usually called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986.
Other legislation, including The Patriot ACT, updates the ECPA to keep the law current with new communications technologies, including easing restrictions on law enforcement access to stored communications.
The ECPA of 1986 makes it a crime to intentionally intercept, disclose, or use any wire, oral, or electronic communication violating federal law.
This federal statute applies to anyone not a party to the communication and intentionally intercepts or uses it without consent. This federal law prohibits any of the following:
- To willfully intercept any oral, wire, or electronic communication;
- Using wired or wireless devices to intercept communications;
- Using devices connected with interstate or foreign commerce intending to intercept communications;
- Intentionally disclose communication knowing it was intercepted illegally;
- Use information from illegally intercepted communications;
- Disclose intercepted communications during an investigation to impede it.
Notably, in addition to willful interception of protected communications, it's a federal offense to attempt to do so or to get another person. Trying to intercept these communications illegally is considered the same crime as carrying them out.
What Are the Exceptions?
Under the law, there are some exceptions, meaning not all acts of intercepting electronic communications is illegal, such as the following:
- Quality control - a company could intercept communications to improve the quality of service, but they will often use a customer service disclaimer;
- Criminal investigations – a company is permitted to disclose intercepted communications to police conducting a criminal investigation.
- Surveillance - law enforcement is often allowed monitor electronic communications during an investigation, either with a warrant or consent from one person involved.
- Foreign Intelligence - federal law enforcement agents are often allowed to intercept communications during an intelligence-gathering investigation for the purpose of national security.
What Are the Related Federal Laws?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 119 Wire, electronic, and oral communications interception have several federal laws related to 18 U.S.C 2511, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 2510 - Definitions;
- 18 U.S.C. 2512 - Manufacture, distribution, and possession of wire, oral, or electronic communication intercepting devices;
- 18 U.S.C. 2513 - Confiscation of intercepting devices;
- 18 U.S.C. 2515 - Prohibition of use as evidence of intercepted wire;
- 18 U.S.C. 2516 - Authorization for interception of communications;
- 18 U.S.C. 2517 - Authorization for disclosure and use of intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications;
- 18 U.S.C. 2518 - Procedure for interception of communications;
- 18 U.S.C. 2519 - Reports concerning intercepted communications;
- 18 U.S.C. 2520 - Recovery of civil damages authorized
- 18 U.S.C. 2521 - Injunction against illegal interception
- 18 U.S.C. 2522 - Enforcement of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act;
- 18 U.S.C. 2522 - Executive agreements on access to data by foreign governments.
What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 2511?
Suppose you are convicted of violating 18 U.S.C 2511 unauthorized interception, disclosure, or use of wire, oral, or electronic communications, which carries the following penalties:
- Up to five years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and
- A fine of up to $250,000.
What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 2511?
As discussed below, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can develop a strategy to obtain the best possible outcome.
Maybe we can argue that you had consent from at least one party involved in the communications. Recall that it must be proven that you had a lack of consent. Suppose we can show that you recorded the conservation with full disclosure and consent. In that case, your action could not be considered illegal interception.
Maybe we can argue that you were unaware that the communications were illegally obtained. Again, it must be proven that your alleged violation of the law was willful.
Suppose you are accused of illegally publishing recorded conversations. In that case, maybe we can argue that you did not know you were intercepted unlawfully.
Maybe we can argue that there was an illegal search and seizure by federal law enforcement agents, which could lead to the dismissal of the charges. Perhaps we can say that you qualify for one of the exceptions listed above.
Contact our law firm for a free case review via phone or fill out the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.